Jennifer O’Brien has some unique insights into death and how to best handle the passing of loved ones. She lost her mother and brother when she was young, and eventually spent 22 months by the side of her beloved husband, Dr. Bob Lehmberg, as he lost a battle with cancer.
Now she’s helping others face the hardships of death and caregiving with a new book called “The Hospice Doctor’s Widow,” which compiles the highlights of her extensive journals from the period she cared for her husband and offers them to readers in an artistic way. Filled with drawings, collages and stylishly crafted text, “Widow” is an 80-page, premium-color salve to the emotionally wounded that reminds us all that death is universal.
“I kept a journal while Bob was sick and kept it up a year and a half after he died,” recalled O’Brien, who has built a career in practice management for a host of medical clinics. “I was working at the Little Rock Diagnostic Center as their interim CEO when I had a conversation with a neurologist who was treating three patients with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a terrible disease to deal with.
“I brought the journal to him and said you might want to take a look at this,” she said. “He took it home, and the next day said ‘Jennifer, you’re not getting it back. I’m going to loan it to these patients and their spouses because it’s got some really helpful stuff in it and you need to figure out a way to get it published because it closes the gap between what a physician can provide and what the family needs.’ When he was clear about how helpful it would be to these people and others in this situation, I decided I had to do it.”
O’Brien spent most of her life in the Chicago area before moving to Little Rock in 2009 as the CEO “of a large orthopedic surgery practice.” One night she attended an art opening and met Lehmberg, who had been a longtime plastic and reconstructive surgeon before a neck injury led him to retrain himself for hospice and palliative care.
Lehmberg was able to use the insights he gleaned from those years of experience to ease his own battle with cancer and share his wisdom with O’Brien along the way. There are plenty of people who could use her wisdom, as there are currently 53 million Americans who are providing uncompensated care for others.
“The uniqueness of our situation is that Bob had helped families and patients who had life-limiting disease like cancer, and I had lost members of my family. So his experience was professional, mine was personal,” explained O’Brien, who was married to Lehmberg for five years before his passing in 2017. “And that’s why I started keeping the arts journal, just doing it as self-care. I was working through my thoughts and feelings like many people do, but mine just happened to be arts journal. But it’s still pretty devastating when you get that news. No one wants that, even when you have experience with it.”
O’Brien notes that the couple “worked really hard together” as Lehmberg faced down cancer, as she took detailed notes while he made his own determinations on which chemotherapies to explore. She also includes a list of “all the things we did administratively, and a couple we failed to do because I didn’t know better. We came to realize the mistakes, so why not share them?”
As an administrative leader in health care who has endured plenty of waiting rooms herself with Lehmberg, O’Brien has some pointed thoughts about the way doctors’ offices are run. She has particular disdain for the use of televisions and magazines in waiting rooms.
“I realize now how special that time is going to appointments with the loved one you’re caring for, because I went to all of Bob’s appointments with him and that has a certain intimacy to it,” O’Brien said. “I learned things like there is just absolutely nothing caring or soothing about a large television in a waiting room. It’s absurd. There’s nothing worse than loud noises in the waiting room, whether someone else’s phone or TV, but they all think they need a TV.
“It’s especially bad now that everyone has their own devices and most are looking down at them,” she added. “It’s especially bad when you have ‘scanxiety’, which I call anxiety from cancer scans. The next scan tells you whether cancer is progressing, slowing in growth or staying the same. An obnoxious blaring television is not what you need at that time. There’s no care there, and magazines are just germ vehicles. All we need is some beautiful art, we’ll bring our devices with us to watch things on our own, and please just see us on time.”
O’Brien also has strong opinions about the issue of doctor access and how long it takes people to see their physicians amid life-and-death struggles. She notes that Lehmberg had a quicker wait than those outside the medical community normally have, because of professional courtesy from his specialists and the fact that he had helped countless people as quickly as possible throughout his career.
“Even as short as our wait was for the specialist meeting about Bob’s metastatic cancer diagnosis was, those hours that day were too long,” said O’Brien. “It’s excruciating because you don’t even know what the next steps are. Sometimes people have to wait a couple weeks and the access issue has got to be dealt with.”
“Widow” is making an impact upon people, a fact O’Brien has learned both through personal comments from its readers and also through the fact that the tome won a prestigious Nautilus Book Award. It took the Silver Award in the “Death & Dying/Grief & Loss” category, beating more than 550 entries from across the U.S.
I’m thrilled that a book about family caregiving and preparing for end of life has been recognized in this way,” noted O’Brien. “We all need to do a better job of that. Most people won’t even talk about end of life, yet it’s the one thing that happens to every one of us. It’s costly both literally and emotionally and all of that can be mitigated quite a bit by just having open conversations about it and saying it’s not if, but when.
“It’s a lovely book to just hold and that’s one of the things that helps people when they’re going through things like that – being able to hold onto something literally is so important,” she said. “The pages have art on them, then my very personal notes and observations. Some have some pretty practical stuff on them, but it was never meant to be a book. It’s a picture book about a very serious situation, which is a difficult combination. When you’re going through this you don’t have the capacity to read a heavy-duty chapter book on the topic.”